Movie Review – G.I. Joe Retaliation (2013)
Anyone who has been following this movie, yes there are a few, will realize that it was originally scheduled to open last summer 2012 but pulled virtually at the last minute even though distributor Paramount Pictures had already spent millions advertising a firm release date. The reason given for the delay revolved around the rather flimsy excuse that studio executives thought it was a good idea to convert the film into 3D presumably to earn more money from the added surcharge. As expected, no one really believed their reasoning and it soon came to light that Paramount had ordered a series of reshoots due to poor previews as well as the fact that they needed more beefcake, in this case represented by actor Channing Tatum. Did their last minute gamble pay off? No.
For all intents and purposes, G.I. Joe Retaliation is essentially a franchise reboot after the semi-disastrous original film that failed to excite both critics and fans. Director Stephen Sommers attempted to craft a modern action film based on the license yet added quirky humour and an altogether campy plot that obviously did not take itself seriously. While this strategy worked for Sommers when he remade The Mummy starring Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz it clearly did not for G.I. Joe The Rise of Cobra as the film ended up being completely cartoonish with surprisingly weak special effects and a cast as bland and stiff as their action figure counterparts.
Therefore, it was back to the drawing board and with it came the decision to basically throw everything from the first film out the window while introducing totally new characters. G.I. Joe Retaliation at least makes some attempt to link the two movies together as the fake US President (Jonathan Pryce) is still in power obviously spinning some nefarious scheme in order to set free the captured Cobra Commander. In the meantime the G.I. Joes, now led by Duke (Channing Tatum), have been doing what they do best by taking out threats to America while protecting freedom and democracy.
Obviously, the Joes are a thorn to the fake president and through a series of events he sets them up for a fall by framing them as the perpetrators behind the Pakistani President’s assassination and their subsequent stealing of that country’s entire nuclear arsenal thus giving him the pretext required to order their termination. The plan almost succeeds but three Joes manage to survive and set out to discover who betrayed them. The trio are led by Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson) the new burly leader, Flint (D.J. Cortana) the hot-headed trooper and Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki) the strikingly beautiful but deadly sniper.
G.I. Joe Retaliation is an exceedingly dumb movie that has only one quadrant appeal to males below the age of 25 and even then the demographic feels inherently narrower as there are elements in the film that seem to be aimed at only teenagers going through puberty. The nonsensical plot about the escape of Cobra Commander and his subsequent plan to blackmail the world to acquiesce to his rule is totally secondary to the narrative showing how the Joes reclaim their lost glory.
Even then the movie is constructed from nothing more than individual segments that are weakly connected with the flimsiest of plot threads that serve to herd audiences from one action setpiece to the next with the precision skill of a blind inebriated butcher. Admittedly, one of these stands out featuring a rather exhilarating though totally implausible martial arts ninja fight between Snake Eyes (Ray Park) and his new female partner Jinx (Elodie Yung) as they battle a throng of Cobra ninjas while swinging back and forth on the sides of snow covered mountains. It is precisely the right balance of being overblown yet visually appealing that the rest of the film frankly lacks.
It is also apparent that Paramount Pictures is hedging its bet on this franchise as the film, especially when compared to the original, feels and looks decidedly cheaper with a much lower budget. The FX work is adequate but the action setpieces including the ending are incredibly low key with confined sets that looks as if someone merely redressed an existing location. Even then the scale is totally cutback from the first film that featured a ridiculous Star Wars inspired ending assault on Cobra Commander’s undersea base by G.I. Joe forces. This time around it looks as if both sides are armed with ten men and a few throw away toys from the nearby garbage dump.
There’s a lot of gunplay featuring heroes who can hit far targets with pinpoint precision using only their sidearm while each henchman must have graduated from the Hollywood antagonist school for morons as they can’t even scratch targets using machine guns. There is also a surprising amount of swordplay courtesy of the three ninja main characters Snake Eyes, Storm Shadow and Jinx although I could have sworn that Storm Shadow died in the last film. Nevertheless, he’s back presumably to give Snake Eyes someone of equal skill to fight against or if all else fails, to sell more action figures.
Actually, the inclusion of these three ninjas really throws the film for a loop in which it never truly recovers as it feels as if they are in a totally different movie altogether. Director Jon M. Chu allows his film to be sidetracked after the attack on the Joes by cutting away from the remaining team members to focus entirely on Snakes Eyes and Jinx in another part of the world as they hunt down Storm Shadow. This forces the film to continuously flip back and forth between both narratives much to the detriment of pace and when the two threads finally converge it lacks conviction as one can feel the scriptwriters vainly attempting to mash the two together in order to setup the climactic third act.
While it would be easy to blame the massive script problems on the fact that the movie is based on a toy line that would be too easy a target. Scriptwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, whose claim to fame was the above average Zombieland, really drop the ball here crafting a movie devoid of intelligence populated by ridiculously thin caricatures that pass as characters and dialogue that is aimed at the lowest common denominator.
There are scenes here which really seem to pander to only one focus group, namely boys who are going through puberty. How else does one justify writing scenes that only show Lady Jaye in a sexual manner such as stripping out of her revealing bright red dress while Flint cops a view of her nubile body through a reflection on a TV monitor? How about the other instances where her gender ends up being the butt of jokes even though it is established in the first five minutes that she is one of the team’s best snipers such as the constant ribbing she takes from General Colton (Bruce Willis) who refers to her by the wrong name? It quickly becomes obvious that her inclusion is to get hot-blooded males excited and nothing else which is a shame as she could have played a much more important role by showing her combat skill rather than utilizing her sexuality as a weapon.
The screenplay is rife with tonal inconsistencies such as attempting to move the film into a more realistic portrayal of the world especially when compared to the original film by linking the plot to the thorny issue of nuclear disarmament. That’s all well and good but the film still has action sequences almost exactly like a superhero movie where someone can be run over by an Escalade roaring at full speed yet quickly spring to his feet, mount a nearby motorcycle and then drive off into the night. Gas tanks can explode right next to main characters with a powerful explosive force that sends everyone flying yet the most damage taken is a lightly scorched back.
Lately Dwayne Johnson has been the go-to guy for Hollywood to hire when rebooting or modifying stale franchises (Fast & Furious and Journey to the Center of the Earth come to mind) thus here he is again flashing his pearly whites and carrying himself in his now familiar charming manner. He’s basically playing himself and generally holds the film together with his bravado but there’s nothing he can do with the lousy script that never bothers to flesh out its characters in any meaningful fashion. Still, Johnson should feel lucky as his Joe compatriots fare even worse such as Adrianne Palicki doing nothing but accentuating her female assets and Flint which is so bland an individual that a store mannequin might have been a better choice in the role.
Jonathan Pryce in the dual role as Zartan and the real US President actually does fine hamming it up as the evil lookalike while dropping groan-worthy jokes, one of which actually manages to make fun of water boarding while giving the president enough gravitas to feel as if he is indeed the Commander in Chief. Bruce Willis is there for his fat pay check but that is to be expected for most of his modern film output.
However, the actor with the biggest beef should be Channing Tatum. It goes without saying that Tatum was the star of the original film but probably didn’t want to return to the sequel yet had to due to contractual reasons. Indeed it was partly because Tatum became a big star in 2012 that forced Paramount to order reshoots forcing a delay from its original summer date to March 2013. The question then becomes was the added footage from the reshoots worth it?
Not at all as instead of adding relevance to the plot his segments come off as totally perfunctory as they only showcase his bromance relationship with Roadblock. At the same time these scenes do nothing but add running time to the beginning of the film bloating the first act with useless filler that would have been better spent fleshing out the new characters. In fact Tatum’s character is not required as the first act could have been accomplished using any generic Joe and it seems the film makers really just wanted his involvement to metaphorically pass the franchise baton to Dwayne Johnson.
It is perhaps unfair to judge new series director Jon M. Chu too harshly merely because he’s been given a ridiculously childish script that ferrets our heroes across the world for no other reason than to somehow fool the audience that this is an action movie on a global scale yet every location feels basically the same with some lackluster production design and nondescript sets that feel as if they’ve been ripped from the worst of the toy line.
Chu provides the film a brisk pace but one area where he requires extra attention are the action sequences which vary widely in competency. The pacing in each action set piece feels flat and editing is oftentimes choppy as there are instances where one can’t help but feel that reams of footage has been unceremoniously dumped on the cutting room floor. Case in point is one scene which has Roadblock chasing Firefly in hover boats that lasts all of thirty seconds. It serves no purpose to show both men commandeering hover boats, sailing for a few seconds and then ramming into the beach as it feels overly-edited so much that its inclusion is invalidated. The production could have potentially saved millions if the sequence was written out entirely.
Say what you will about original film director Stephen Sommers but the man at least knew how to shoot and construct exciting action sequences and though newcomer John Chu tries his best the results are decidedly mixed. Notwithstanding the aforementioned mountain ninja fight the rest of the film just doesn’t excite as the action mainly consists of machine gun fire and underwhelming melee battles.
G.I. Joe Retaliation is yet another disaster based on a Hasbro toy line joining the first film and last summer’s awfully bombastic Battleship that prove that perhaps the producers involved in these projects don’t really care much about their properties if they constantly green-light such underwhelming screenplays. While no one is surely expecting Shakespearean quality dialogue or subtext the fact remains that these projects are constructed with the flimsiest of plots and populated by forgettable stereotyped characters that rarely make any sort of impression. Seriously, if one wants to craft a film with a strong focus on exciting action that doesn’t mean that characters should be ignored as no one cares about the outcome if there is no connection built with those on screen. It’s a basic principle that many in Hollywood have seemingly forgotten and though G.I. Joe Retaliation made enough money for a sequel I can’t say I predict that many will be feverishly counting down the days till its premiere.
*1/2 out of ****
2013, USA, 110 Min, PG-13, Paramount Pictures/MGM/Skydance/Hasbro
Directed by Jon M. Chu
Written by Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick
Produced by Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Brian Goldner
Executive Producer Gary Barber, Roger Birnbaum, David Ellison, Herb Gains, Dana Goldberg, Erik Howsam, Paul Schwake, Stephen Sommers
Original Music by Henry Jackman
Cinematography by Stephen F. Windon
Film Editing by Roger Barton, Jim May
Dwayne Johnson: Roadblock
Jonathan Pryce: President
Byung-hun Lee: Storm Shadow
Elodie Yung: Jinx
Ray Stevenson: Firefly
D.J. Cotrona: Flint
Adrianne Palicki: Jaye
Channing Tatum: Duke
Ray Park: Snake Eyes
Luke Bracey: Cobra Commander
Walton Goggins: Warden Nigel James
Arnold Vosloo: Zartan
Joseph Mazzello: Mouse
Nick Erickson: President Picture Double
RZA: Blind Master
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